Update: Everything You Need to Know About the Oklahoma Teacher Walkouts

Oklahoma teachers walked out of their classrooms on April 2 to protest the low state funding of their schools. The teachers’ purpose was to put pressure on lawmakers to pass bills that would increase Oklahoma's revenue, as well as to urge them to direct those revenue toward education.

The walkout was inspired by the successful strike of West Virginia teachers earlier this year. The nine-day strike resulted in a 5 percent raise for teachers. Teachers in Kentucky are now also protesting a bill that would change their pension plans and limit the number of sick days to which they're entitled.

In 2016, Oklahoma teachers on average earned an annual salary of $45,276, which is drastically lower than the national average; in fact, Oklahoma ranks 49th in the country for median teacher salary. In 2010, Oklahoma’s governor signed a bill to raise the average teacher’s salary by $6,100. Now, Oklahoma teachers are asking for a $10,000 dollar increase.

Oklahoma teachers urged their lawmakers to take action on three measures to secure necessary funding: to impose sales tax on third-party retailers, to introduce a gambling tax and to charge a motel tax. The passage of these bills would generate significant revenue for the state, and they could be used for education.

On April 6, teachers gathered at the Oklahoma state capitol to reiterate their message as legislators voted on key bills. It resulted in the passage of both imposing sales tax on third-party retailers bill and introducing gambling tax. These measures are slated to raise $40 million for Oklahoma, nearly all of which the government will use to fund education.

However, the teachers' goal was more than securing higher salaries for themselves; they also wanted to demand support for a severely underfunded school system. Massive budget cuts in Oklahoma since 2009 greatly reduced state funding for education. It forced 20 percent of the state's public schools to convert to four-day school weeks.

The lack of funding has created distressing conditions in Oklahoma public schools. Some schools are unable to heat buildings at sufficient temperatures; other schools are so sparse of resources that teachers are paying for school supplies out of their own pockets. Oklahoma teacher Laurissa Kovacs posted an image of a broken chair in her classroom; it prompted nearly $44,000 in donations to benefit her classroom.

After passing the two tax bills that would help fund education, legislators had decided to allocate $479 million towards school funding. But, teachers continued to demand that they direct $3.3 billion to education, extending their walkout into the week of April 9. 

Many teachers intended to continue the walkout for a third week; but on April 12, the ninth day of the walkout, the Oklahoma Education Association officially ended the walkout. The OEA stated that they would accept the $479 million directed to schools — and consider it a victory — despite the teachers’ original demands for $3.3 billion.

However, many Oklahoma teachers disagree with the OEA ending the strike. Several planned on using sick days to continue the walkout, as they still believe their demands haven’t yet been met. Moreover, educators are upset that the OEA called an end to the strike when it was the teachers themselves who started it. Renee Jerden, an Oklahoma teacher who was inspired by the walkout to run for the State Senate, stated that “The OEA doesn't get to decide when I'm finished,” foreshadowing that the work of Oklahoma teachers is far from done.

Although the walkout has officially ended, Oklahoma teachers are nowhere near finished fighting for more school funding. While there's a resolution in this story, the passion and determination that linger within Oklahoma teachers make it likely that they continue working for what they deserve.